The Department of Defense also suffers from an extreme case of strategic ambivalence. Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Jihadi extremism require forces designed for counterinsurgency and irregular war. F-22s, F-35s, nuclear-powered submarines, and high-technology weapon systems, no matter how capable, are much harder and much more costly to bring to bear in these types of operations.
Then there are potential threats from so-called "peer competitors," a code word for presumptive superpowers such as China. Top of the line forces are needed for those contingencies, however likely or not. And it is these expensive systems that major U.S. defense corporations produce and sell, where the vast bulk of their business and profits are made, and where congressional support is strongest. But who will decide between balancing these two strategic choices of irregular and conventional war knowing there is not enough money to fully fund both?
Last, our active-duty and Reserve ground forces are being worn out in repeated and lengthy deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. At some point, after fifth, sixth, and seventh tours, morale will collapse. No matter how professional and inspired, troops in a combat zone can only take so much stress and hardship. Indeed, the future of the All-Volunteer Force is in jeopardy.
Whether Republicans or Democrats capture the White House, these realities will remain. Unfortunately, none of the three likely candidates has acknowledged the magnitude of these problems. And none fully appreciates how much money is needed to maintain current levels of military capability.
A tool that the Bush administration put in place offers a partial solution. That tool is transformation. Transformation has both an uneven name and an imprecise definition. In simple terms, unless the next administration is prepared to change the way the Pentagon (and the nation) conducts the business of defense, these pessimistic forecasts are likely to come true. That should be the new meaning of transformation—changing how we do business across the entire spectrum of Pentagon responsibilities.
Much more than a single column is needed to outline a way ahead. But here are a few crucial suggestions. First, the senior military needs to make a rigorous and highly objective assessment of the consequences of this "strategic-resources-operational" mismatch and candidly deliver it to the new administration.
Second, irregular or counterinsurgency war must be the priority. For forces needed for "big wars," something equivalent to Britain's ten-year rule should be adopted. That is, we will have ample warning time if China or a resurgent Russia decides to challenge the United States or the West militarily. In that case, forces for the big war will be smaller and some can be placed in reserve or "cadre" status so that if or when needed, each can be returned to active duty.
Third, the planning, requirements and budget execution process must be overhauled, including the regulatory and oversight regimes. Congress must be part of these reforms as well. That process is worse than broken. It does not work. For example, virtually every new major weapon system costs about twice as much, takes twice as long, and ends up with about half the numbers originally planned.
One conclusion is self-evident. If our security is important, business as usual will assure an unhappy ending. Transform we must, and we must do it right.